It was a rare, happy occasion.
I remember how normal and whole I felt that evening. I was standing on the front of the shopping cart as my dad plied the aisles, tracking down items to match the coupons my mom had sent with us on our trip to the grocery store. My sister was barely two. She sat in the baby seat facing my dad. I felt the privilege of age and size as I hopped off now and then to grab a jar of peanut butter or carton of milk. I remember it was a nice, family feeling.
And that’s probably why I remember what came afterwards so vividly.
The parking lot was almost dark. The last traces of sunlight were descending into the Pacific, giving the clouds a eerie tinge. My sister and I clambered into the old, tan Cadillac. This was before child seats seemed anything more than a nerdy affectation. I was standing on the front seat, distracted with teasing my sister or playing with the radio buttons. After a little while I noticed something missing.
Where was Dad?
I looked out the windows: behind the car, off to the sides, in front. I looked again. I called out to him: No response. My sister sensed me getting nervous. She started to cry. My tiny heart was palpitating.
With nothing to dispel my worst fears, I decided Dad had been kidnapped or killed whiĺe putting groceries in the trunk.
For all I knew some hoodlum had teleported out of an episode of Kojak or Starsky and Hutch straight onto the mean streets of Morro Bay, California. He had snuck up on him, and with no explanation at all (because in my mind there never was any explanation. The TV shows I had been allowed to watch alone long into the night never offered any explanation my little mind could grasp) he had struck him down in cold blood. Dad wouldn’t be coming back. All that remained for us was survival. We’d take to the streets. Hopefully we’d find some helpful people in the store to take us in. It somehow didn’t occur to me that my mom would be interested in our care.
After the passing of what my dad still swore years later was “only a minute” but which was more realistically something more like five to ten (an eternity to a small child), he opened the door to hear our panicked screaming. “Where were you? We thought you were killed!” I shouted and screamed in my tearful anguish.
Through gnashing teeth he shouted back at us. He had forgotten to get butter. After he had loaded the groceries, he had closed the trunk and walked back into the store, presumably to stave off conflict with my mom or because he wanted buttered toast in the morning. It didn’t occur to him to not leave his two small children in a darkened parking lot. We didn’t even rate a quick “You stay here. I forgot something. I’ll be right back. Don’t open the door for strangers!” One supposes he considered us part of the car, or perhaps just more groceries.
He was angry at me. My agitation had shown weak character on my part — but even more aggravating — a distrust in him. I was obviously “wrong” about it all. It was impossible for him to even apologize, of course, and my mother more or less backed him up. It had been a sin for me to panic when abandoned by my father without a word at night in a dark parking lot–presumably left to totally care for a toddler I already felt I had been raising on my own as a six-year-old.
He died in 1989. He still remembered that episode even as his death approached. He still blamed me.
Failed attachment makes for a sick system. That’s no overstatement: It’s fascinating how self-reinforcing it can be. It’s the sick system that’s a reflection of a healthy one.
When we’re infants, we tend to bond with whomever responds to our needs most immediately and consistently. This early germ of a relationship gives us the confidence needed to explore and learn about our surroundings. It also helps form identity. As we grow there’s a virtuous cycle as we bring things back to our caregiver and get their response and encouragement as they watch us grow. We know — intuitively — we can always come back to their care. This shapes our nervous and emotional systems for later growth and secure attachment with others outside. With some measure of self-confidence (that doesn’t more resemble a suicidal leap of despair), we know we always have a place in the world, thanks to that early attachement. We transfer those feelings we had for our initial caregivers to our later relationships. And as we age, we continue look upon our parents (or parent) with affection and a sort of joy. “You’re the person who took care of me. I’m bonded to you” is what we might silently say to ourselves even in the midst of teen rebellion.
When that early bond is insecure or non-existent, there’s still a cycle–but it’s a destructive one. You don’t trust your surroundings. You don’t trust other people — or you trust them all equally. You really know only that you have yourself. You’re alone. No one is coming to help. You start to become very aware and protective of yourself. This makes sense: For your self is your only bonding partner. So when you eventually do try to reach out to others, you don’t do so in a natural, trusting way. You don’t trust others, so they don’t trust you. Without trust, you can’t really love. Without offering love, you aren’t loved in return. If any love is freely offered to you, you spurn it: It’s not to be trusted. You’ll find yourself alone again and again.
And with every iteration of this cycle — with every failure of a relationship or a venture or effort– there’s a message drilled even more deeply into your mind. It was a message implanted in infancy as a vague whisper your mind spoke to itself after you reached out and found no one else was there. The message is:
You aren’t worth it, anyway.
By the time the grocery-store abandonment had occurred, I was already well past being able to emotionally trust either of my parents. They had shown me they weren’t to be seen as any safe harbor. Enough had happened already. I was expressing my distress at the arrangement. And I was becoming a burden to them.
I have a problem with feelers: They feel.
I was warned several times about my attachment problems during my young adulthood.
Whenever I could work up the courage to openly share with others, I would explain my background and my current emotional landscape. Some told me what I needed to hear. Others told me what they thought I wanted to hear. For years I was able to drown out that inner voice with my career and my various interests and pharma prescriptions, but it would still pop up now and then to irritate me and tell me that everything around me was basically as disposable and insignificant as I felt myself to be. In a therapeutic setting, I would hear standard lines about being in touch with my feelings. None of it made a shit of difference to me: More blather from people who fondled ferns and worshipped the healing power of macramé.
But then slowly — by fits and starts — I began to see things differently. I couldn’t deny the existence of things called “feelings”, and these had to have served some sort of evolutionary purpose, I thought. There needed to have been a rational purpose for feelings — at least at some point. To believe otherwise was to grant the existence of demons. Further, the basis of those emotions rested in the genetically-determined physical structures that made up the nervous and hormonal systems. Those structures are shaped as they are for a purpose, and in response to their environment.
I admit this is a very “thinker” way of approaching something that even babies seem to grasp intuitively: That feelings are real and matter. I claim absolutely no superiority as one who prefers thinking over feeling. People like me are using the wrong tool at least half of the time though their lives, I find.
Finally, after reading a bit about the ongoing effects of childhood trauma, it came to me: Failed attachment determines the nervous and hormonal systems in such a way that it pervades everything one does for the rest of his or her life. It’s not something someone just decides to put behind them at some point. It has a role in determining everything about life.
At times I reflect on how painfully aware I am of my everyday efforts. I think I’m mindful in a bad way.
I’m aware of the weight of my body against the car’s upholstery. I’m mindful of the level remaining in the sour cream container. I’m mindful of the fit of the door in its jamb, and the way the air conditioning feels against my face. I’m mindful of the emails I get showing credit card statuses and things people need me to do for them.
And the message that comes through to me, spoken through all of these perceptions is usually simply this:
You aren’t worth it, anyway. . .
This is a celebration.
It doesn’t seem like one, but it is.
It’s not sad at all. Once I realized my problem, it was as though the heavens opened above me. I felt like the long-sick man who suddenly has a diagnosis. I realized that I wasn’t just crazy or lazy or irresponsible or needy or mis-built in some way. There were reasons why I felt the way I did, and those feelings where what had motivated me to act as I did my whole life, and fail to act in other ways.
I came to realize the things I thought were my strengths– the arrogant daring, the ability to turn on a dime as though nothing that came before mattered at all, the fundamental unattachment to any reality I didn’t create myself a moment or so before — came from the results of an experience that was also a weakness. That experience was doing everything it could to kill me.
As a child I had been made a thing — a physical object. And physical objects only decay: Perpetual loss.
When your whole worldview is couched in a free-floating dread of being abandoned at any moment, it tends to have unexpected consequences. Eventually, there is a toll to be paid no matter how well you hide your very basic insecurity and self-hate.
But getting to that stage of being free to acknowledge the problem, and free to determine a response, took a lot of doing — and a lot of drama.
This is part two of a three-part series on attachment disorder. Next up: Finding someone who holds the recipe for lemonade.